Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

DATE FINISHED: July 20th, 2012 

RATED: **** 

SYNOPSIS:  Holland has planted his land with every variety of eucalyptus he can get his hands on – over five hundred in total. As his daughter reaches marriageable age, he decides that only the man who can correctly name all of his eucalypts will be good enough to take her hand. News of Ellen’s beauty and Holland’s challenge travel far and wide, but it is only when one suitor shows clear signs that he will accomplish this task that Ellen begins to worry – especially as she has recently met a stranger whose odd stories have somehow got under her skin…

THOUGHTS:  This is, of course, a fairy tale. But the characters are more than archetypes, the landscape lives and breathes, and the story is compelling. Bail’s down-to-earth narrative voice provides the necessary omniscient narrative, combining dry wit with a sometimes irritating pomposity, but highlighted with frequent glimpses of unforced poetry: “smooth stones lay under water like pears suspended in syrup”.

Although Bail avoids anthropomorphicism, the eucalypts nonetheless play a large part in this book’s appeal. You will learn a lot about Australia’s native tree but instead of a dry text book, there are vivid character sketches of the numerous varieties, not to mention the tangential starting points they provide for the stranger’s often odd or melancholy love stories.

There is an obvious element of unreality to the story, but it is so well told that it is easy to suspend belief. The first half of the book – Holland’s marriage, the building of a new life in the outback, with eucalypts – was captivating. If my interest began to wane a little as the suitor progressed through his naming of the trees, and Ellen listened to story upon story from the stranger, this was only a brief lapse on my part, and I soon found my heart was in my mouth as I carried on turning the pages to find out if Ellen would really be forced into marrying a man purely because he could name an extraordinary number of trees.

This is at its core a love story, but if the fairy tale structure is as old as time, the telling itself is as original as can be.

FOLLOWING ON: Ellen’s mystery illness is similar to that of Kellyanne in the fable Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice.

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